“Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write “I love you”
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue”–Roy Orbison “Pretty Paper”
“If you don’t have a merry little Christmas, you might as well kill yourself. Every waking second should be spent in Christmas compulsion; career, love affairs, marriages and all the other clutter of daily life must take a back seat to this holiday of holidays,” writes John Waters in his psychotic Christmas classic Why I Love Christmas (130). Well, if it’s good enough for our preeminent filth elder John Waters, it’s good enough for us. Christmas is truly the best time of the year.
While Christmas is well over, an exhibition at Kate Werble Gallery is keeping the Christmas spirit alive for a little while longer. Curated by artist Laurel Sparks, the show, entitled XXXmASS, brings together a range of artists to bolster the art world Scrooges’ holiday cheer. Granted, this version of Christmas is a little more risqué than other Christmas markets. With a name that sounds like a Santa-themed strip club, XXXmASS proves that Christmas can provide as much raw (and subversive) artistic inspiration as any other subject.
Even though it’s almost impossible to escape Christmas anywhere else, it feels unique in the art world. Art typically doesn’t have that much ho-ho-holiday spirit. I guess critical sneers don’t land under twinkling lights and eggnog just seems like a bad choice for an opening night cocktail. Other than Paul McCarthy, it’s difficult to think of another artist that takes Christmas and its tacky symbolism as their muse.
And yet, Christmas is just so over-the-top that it’s perfect for cooptation and subversion. Beyond just the religious fervor, Christmas represents such a quintessential part of America’s capitalist fantasy and material culture that it’s a wonder more artists don’t delve into Christmas mania. Clearly, Kate Werble Gallery and the artists included in XXXmASS know this. The press released promises, among other things, “nutcracker orgies, satanic reindeer, pagan circus trees, intersexed elves.” I know I was sold.
True to their description, the exhibition presents a bizarro yet thoroughly fun and playful version of the holidays. Before even entering the gallery, Nathan Carter’s fictional riot grrl diorama gleams in the gallery’s window as a punk beacon that would kick Barney’s or Bergdorf’s ass. Inside Kate Werble, spikes of thin metal mistletoe by Beth Campbell hang threatening and precarious while Caroline Wells Chandler’s pock-marked neon moons circle the gallery like stocking stuffers for your acid head cousin. Laurel Sparks’ own artificial Christmas tree stands in the center of the space, covered in decorations and black-wrapped presents.
Some of the artists’ contributions employ the traditional materials of the holidays to poke fun at Christmas social pressures. For example, Polly Apfelbaum’s aptly titled, wall-mounted Sorry Santa I Regifted resembles layers upon layers of striped gift bags. This should be familiar to some viewers–I know my mother has a bag of bags just like this one squirreled away in a closet (In fact, my father recently threatened to call Hoarders if she didn’t get rid of it). With her title, Apfelbaum hints at the possibility that someone will notice you’re reusing the same bags again and again. But, who cares–Christmas is the time when it’s ok to be tasteless.
Other works take on the more (and less) idyllic tree-lined family room scene. Brock Enright’s Installation at 876 looks like crafters gone wild. Copious pins and pom-poms cover a warm fireplace-lit vision of Noel. However, there are so many of these pom-poms and multicolored pins that it’s almost impossible to see the actual image. I get it, sometimes you get carried away. Here, kitsch overtakes idealism.
Conversely, speaking of Hoarders, Brandi Twilley’s drawing Shasta depicts a lone Christmas tree in a sea of detritus. The scene is similar to her destroyed living room paintings on view in her summer show The Living Room at Sargent’s Daughters, which explored the limits of memory through her remembrances of her childhood living room. But done entirely in graphite, Twilley’s Shasta looks like the memories of bygone family Christmases are fading. Certain inconsequential tidbits like the soda cans in the foreground are rendered with more detail and focus than other parts of the room, proving the strange and minute objects our memories sometimes preserve.
As the title reveals, much of the work in XXXmASS has a sleazy sexual side. I mean, isn’t Santa the ultimate daddy? Take, for example, Tony Cox’s Nut Scrunchers, which made me want to involuntarily belt “I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas” in the gallery. But, I thought better of it. The piece presents a bike seat covered in Olivia Newton John-esque scrunchies and a little sweater for your, ahem, nuts. It’s fetish gear for winter weather. Nut Scrunchers pairs very nicely with Cox’s fuzzy vaginal Snatch Beast in the gallery’s next room.
Along with Cox’s two kinky works, Jesse Harrod contributes possibly the most festive butt plug I’ve ever seen. Titled Homament, the sculptural plug is covered in shimmering green sequins and presented on a pedestal. It’s a shining beacon honoring the queer appropriation of the holidays. Who said a butt plug couldn’t be a camp object, Susan Sontag?
Harrod’s Homament is a fitting inclusion to XXXmASS since, there’s something just so queer about Christmas, isn’t there? I bet those “War Against Christmas”-types would be horrified to find out we’re all playing for the same team! I mean, the overblown, highly aestheticized Christmas season just plays right into a distinctive extremist trash aesthetic. Certainly, John Waters loves Christmas for a reason.
And this queer Christmas mania pervades other pieces in XXXmASS. Perhaps my favorite work in the show, Paul Rizzo’s 34 Holiday Cards features the Christmas cards you should send to your Trump voting relatives. With phrases like “Wishing you fellatio, black leather and rainbows,” “I saw daddy eating Santa Claus,” and an image of, well, fellatio captioned with the phrase “hand delivered,” these holiday well-wishes, strung together into a singular installation, are a deliciously sly subversion of Hallmark-sanctioned holiday greetings. Who wouldn’t want to receive a card emblazoned with “fuck everything with rainbows”?
Open until January 19th, Kate Werble Gallery gives viewers one last opportunity to revel in Christmas since January is typically the time for SAD. No, not just Seasonal Affective Disorder, but the crushing depression that comes after the twinkling lights have dimmed, the Christmas tree is a burnt-out husk and you’re terrified to remove the garlands for fear of scattering pine needles all over your house that you’ll be discovering for months on end. I mean, who doesn’t watch reruns Great Christmas Light Fight and get teary with a combination of nostalgia, loss and just a smidgen of jealousy? Yes, the finale of Christmas is crushing. I know, I know, all good things must come to an end, but sometimes, it’s just so hard to let Santa baby go.